Chain Reaction

Why some inmates dig the pauper-planting female chain gang

SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO HAS INVITED critics and fans and, of course, reporters, to help him commemorate this week's third anniversary of his world-famous, "first and only" all-female, gravedigging chain gang.

The sheriff's September 19, 1996, start-up of the all-girl gravedigging chain gang so enraged some ministers that they stopped performing rites at Maricopa County's pauper's graveyards. The Reverend Gerald Roseberry, for instance, noted that inmates had previously dug graves without chains. He said he'd have no part in Arpaio's media game.

But the chain gang continued. Other ministers showed up to pray over the graves of the poor as the chain-gang gals sweated and wept. Three years later, the sheriff's office claims that the chain gang has buried about 80 indigents. (Although gravedigging is by far the most publicized activity of chain gangettes, they also paint curbs, obliterate graffiti and pick up litter, for a total savings to taxpayers, according to the sheriff's office, of "more than $500,000" in three years.)

The chain gang is voluntary, and any inmate confined to her cell in disciplinary "lockdown" who graduates from the 30-day program gets to mix once again with the general inmate population. The sheriff has long said that beyond teaching inmates a modicum of responsibility, graveyard detail might help inmates turn their lives around. The way the sheriff sees it, there's nothing like having crack whores burying "people whose lives have come to nothing" to help them get on the straight and narrow.

It's no shock that Donna Leone Hamm refused to attend the third-anniversary chain-gang gala. The executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, Hamm is perhaps Arpaio's most vocal archenemy.

In declining the sheriff's invitation to "get honest and concrete answers from real people, not theatrical, knee-jerk, liberal second guessers" at the third-anniversary event, Hamm wrote the sheriff on September 14: "Your shameless and deceptive perversion of the fundamental principles of justice has reached its apogee with female chain gangs and I will have no part in your attempt to garner even greater gain."


So, who's right?

The sheriff, who says female chain gangs build character?

Or Hamm, who says chain gangs "abase" the characters of the downtrodden inmates?

If you visit a crew of gravedigging chain-gang gals at White Tanks Cemetery, you will soon learn that neither Sheriff Joe nor Donna Hamm is correct.

Here are the real reasons there's a waiting list of inmates who want to get on the chain gang:

• The bag lunches outshine the jail's famous green baloney sandwiches. Maybe the lunches are prepared for media scrutiny. The inmates don't care. All they know is that lunch is pretty good. On a recent visit, ladies sat in the shade, five to a chain, and munched on chips, ham and cheese sandwiches (with condiments) on either rye or white, fresh apples and oranges and fruit juice. On this particular day, a family whose relative was buried by the chain gang had also dropped off chilled pop for the gravediggers.

• Chain-gang detail is better than jail work duty. It's nice to get out of jail, be in the sun and get a good day's workout. It shapes the quadriceps, firms those flabby triceps, and it sure beats toiling away at the jail doing laundry or cleaning up pigeon guano.

• The chains aren't bad, as chains go. Several inmates actually say they can sometimes step out of their lightweight chains, because jail officers often manacle the chains loosely to inmates' boots.

But these women say they would never step out of the chains, which they recognize as a publicity ploy. And they say even if they had no chains at all, they wouldn't run away. Here's why: Inmates are chosen for the chain gang precisely because they are neither dangerous criminals nor escape risks.

• Chain-gang women don't mess up their nails or tattoos. Work gloves are provided to inmates, who have a lot of time in jail to do their nails and decorate their hands and wrists with jailhouse tattoos.

• On occasion, you can meet cute foreign journalists, who cover the chain gang for the world press. Hey, it's fun having your picture taken and being interviewed.

• The chain gang gives you something to think about when you're locked up in your cell. Digging graves in chains does give many inmates pause about their own lives.

Maria Gonzales, 34, says she's in jail for violating parole in connection with a drug charge. She says she has dug enough graves attended by no mourners to wonder if anyone will attend her own funeral.

• The chain gang might be a novelty, but it won't keep you away from your old life if you really want it back.

Lorie Rivas, 30, served on the chain gang this summer. She was released on probation in August, she says, but was arrested again in early September for prostitution.

Yet, she says the chain gang gave her "respect for authority and myself. . . . I was thinking totally positive on the chain gang. My plan was to do rehab [for drug use] and to get a job."

But when Rivas the chain-gang graduate got sprung from jail, she forgot about the chain-gang goals and rehab and a job and started smoking rock and hooking, she says.

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